Loading into World of Warcraft: Dragonflight for the first time gave me a strange feeling. I hadn’t set foot in Azeroth for 14 years, since walking away at some time in 2008 after the birth of my daughter. At that time I was a level-capped Draenei Hunter with a hell of a reputation in my Guild for DPSing Raid bosses into the ground. And only occasionally forgetting to change my Pet’s behaviour, of course.
But it’s been a long time since I partook of Blizzard’s immense MMORPG, at one time regarded as the true daddy of the genre. Stepping back into Azeroth was almost daunting. Actually scratch “almost”, the fact is I had no idea what I was doing. In fact I didn’t even jump into the new content right away, and instead revisited the comfort zone by creating a Draenei Paladin. It felt like slipping on an old pair of slippers, but there was little point dwelling on the comfortable.
While it was nice to roam around the Draenei starting zone, free of any real danger, completing easy quests for a pittance, the real WoW begins at level 60. Or 70 now, really, but that takes a while when you’re a noob, which I essentially was. Well, am. So I created two more characters, a Worgen Hunter which I boosted to level 60 thanks to the Collector’s Edition code, and a Horde Dracthyr Evoker, the new hybrid race/class introduced in World of Warcraft: Dragonflight which begins at level 58.
One thing Dragonflight does really well is recapture the sense of adventure Warcraft used to have. Back in the days of The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, WoW was about more than just ploughing through levels and consuming content as quickly as possible. There used to be more depth to it, the world of Azeroth was more colourful, the fantasy was somehow more fantastical.
While playing as any other race or class will see you heading to the newly rediscovered Dragon Isles on an expedition, it feels much more personal and impactful if you play as the Dracthyr. It creates an interesting dichotomy though. See, I journeyed to the Dragon Isles first with my Worgren, by sea, and upon landing immediately set to meeting and greeting the various characters happy to hand out kill and fetch quests that let me explore my immediate surroundings. I was struck by how bright and vibrant it all was, given how grim and grey Warcraft looked throughout the Shadowlands era.
There’s a lot of new and updated stuff, too. The Professions, for example, have been completely overhauled. Much of the mindless grind has been taken out, replaced with a simpler structure and easy to follow progression systems that feel meaningful and engaging. It’s no longer a case of just harvesting and crafting on autopilot, it now requires you to get involved and pay attention to what you’re doing. You’ll need to fulfil specific criteria to unlock specialisations that make you feel like you’re actually achieving something.
For the first time there are proper Talent trees, too, which allow more direct control over the way your character develops, which skills you use and unlock. The skills themselves haven’t been tweaked, but the way you move through the trees makes a difference. Blizzard have paid attention to the strong modding community, as well, adding some quality of life elements that you previously had to use mods for, such as modifying the layout of the UI.
Combat and traversal, on the other hand, still feel quintessentially “WoW”, for better or worse. If you don’t like the MMO-style combat of cycling skills and managing cooldowns, this won’t excite you. There’s nothing to make it feel particularly thrilling outside of PvP, though you can still Raid, or smash through the eight new dungeons. I can’t tell you much about them yet, but the option is there for those who want to invest the time.
Perhaps the most impressive new addition is the avility to fly on your own Dragon mount. Becoming a Dragonrider is more than just a status symbol in Dragonflight; the new Isles are built for traversal on the back of a mighty beast. But this isn’t like your standard WoW traversal, slow and steady and scenic. Dragonriding is not only free-roaming, but super-fast. Dip, dive, bank, and soar through the air with a sens of speed hitherto unseen in Azeroth. It’s not just fun; it’s genuinely exhilarating.
Something else that makes the game feel very different is playing as a Dracthyr. This draconic race is a new addition for Dragonflight, newly awoken along with the big bad, Raszageth. Beginning as a Dracthyr is a whole different experience that throws you right into the thick of it from the off. You awaken to a cataclysmic conflict, and must rediscover abilities you’ve forgotten. Soaring through the air, breathing fire down upon your enemies, healing with the power of flame. These gifts are yours once you complete the first few quests.
Playing as a Dracthyr also feels more exciting. You’re not off on some expedition to pick flowers, you’re fighting for the world against a powerful adversary. Choosing a Horde character I was soon sent to Orgrimmar with my leader, Ebyssian, and told to make nice with the rest of the Horde. In Dragonflight’s timeline the Horde and Alliance have called a truce, putting an end to hostilities – though of course, PvP is still perfectly viable.
I chose to tackle Azeroth as three different characters, with three different combinations of Profession, three different races, levels and starting zones. Because Dragonflight feels more alt-friendly, it’s a viable way to play – even if ultimately two of them will fall behind. But my Draenei is there purely for the sake of nostalgia, to remind me of the game I played 14 years ago. The Worgen and Dracthyr allow me to experience two different threads of the same new story.
Returning to Azeroth has been a strange adventure. I haven’t seen the game evolve from what I knew then to what it is now, and so it doesn’t look all that different to my nostalgia-clouded eyes. But I do remember the sense of adventure, the grand, great world stretched out before me, the endless possibilities. WoW became an obsession for me once, and while I’ve grown a lot since then, and my taste in games has changed quite a bit, I can still remember why it got me like it did.
Dragonflight feels like that old World of Warcraft; a fantasy adventure on a global scale, full of colour and excitement and self-aware hokum. I’ve enjoyed coming back, I might even stay a while. Blizzard might never truly manage to recapture the magic they once had, but Dragonflight is the closest they’ve gotten in a decade. For many, myself included, that may be close enough.